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OVU partners with Wood County Magistrate Court for mediation program

NOTE: This story was originaly published in the Parkersburg News & Sentinel, by Jeff Baughan, January 14, 2018. See original article here.

Mediation: A settlement of a dispute or controversy by setting up an independent person between two contending parties in order to aid them in the settlement of their disagreement. That’s the legal definition from legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com.

There’s the Wood County Magistrate Court System and there is Ohio Valley University and the partnership between the two as far as mediators go.

The program, in its sixth year, is directed by Beth Wade at Ohio Valley, who is the Criminal Justice program director. There are two former students and one current student involved: Sarah Marshall, Mara Capati and Abagail Dotson.

“The first semester focuses on dispute resolution,” Wade said. “The second focuses on mediation where a neutral person will help two disputing parties come to a resolution or agreement.”

According to Wade, students must complete “Introduction to Alternative Dispute Resolution” and “Conflict Mediation” before learning to mediate.

“The third Thursday of every month, the magistrate will order cases to go to mediation,” Wade said. “The magistrates think the case can be resolved through mediation. So, if the parties come to an agreement through mediation, they sign the papers, the magistrate signs off and the magistrates say the agreement is binding.”

The mediating session is approximately 45 minutes long. Marshall, who is a 2015 graduate in pre-law with interdisciplinary studies and a minor in alternative dispute resolutions, is seeking a master’s in law at Regent University at Virginia Beach, Va.

“I think it helps with the case load the magistrates have to deal with,” said Marshall. “I also think it helps people feel like they have more control over the situation and settlement. The judge has the order. I don’t make a decision in the case. I just lead them to the discussion and hopefully to a mutual agreement.”

Of course, that doesn’t always work. “Sometimes they won’t even speak to each other,” she said. “And cases are assigned, we try to make sure we don’t know the parties.”

Wade said the mediation usually involves items in small claims, medical collections, landlords versus tennants. “Anything which can to magistrate court through civil can be mediated. “There are full agreements, partial agreement or the ‘go to the magistrate’ choice.”

“Initially, we just sat in on the mediation sessions,” said Capati, who is a 2015 OVU graduate with degrees in criminal justice, psychology and Biblical vocational missions. She is an assistant director of programming and a case manager at Catholic Charities West Virginia.

“The training was scary at first,” she said, “but the training was so helpful and gave a real understanding of this. For instance, in mediation, the case can’t be over a total of $5,000 in cash or property.”

Once the mediator closes the door to begin the session, what is said in the room is not repeated outside those doors.

“When the argument is made in the room, it goes no further,” Wade said. But once is not always enough when it comes to the mediation. “Sometimes one has to continue the mediation until they can get more information. What you really want them to do is to talk to each other.

“Sometimes we will hold a caucus with a mediation case with one party at a time,” she said. “That usually establishes a great deal of trust between everyone. Sometimes they don’t know what their options are or what options are available to them.”

A mediator can hear four cases in an evening at the magistrate court. The mediation night is once a month.

“Sometimes when a mediator isn’t able to make it for whatever reason, one of the students will fill in,” Wade said.

“I think the mediation gives people a better idea how this form of government functions,” said Marshall. “There can be a lot of mistrust in something when you don’t know how it works.”

“There are three things I try to establish,” said Capati. “Those are neutrality, confidentially and trust. We’re younger than most of those involved in mediation cases so you need to show confidence in yourself. So they take you seriously. What you’re doing is qualifying yourself and I’ve never had an issue as to why I am there.”

Capati said everyone “has their own style of mediating. Mine is repeating back to the participants as to what I have heard so they know I am paying attention to what they have to say.”

Dotson is a double major at Ohio Valley, going for criminal justice and psychology. “I came here for criminal justice and loved it,” she said. “I chose to add the psychology because it opens more doors for me.”

Graduate school is in her plans with the goal of being a forensic psychologist and obtaining a PhE degree.

“That’s a psychological/doctoral/clincal in alternative dispute resolution,” she said. “I love this. I love helping people with problems. And it’s a more relaxed situation as you actually get to talk to a person.

“I think it’s a great alternative to court. It’s free, people reach an agreement and it’s law binding,” Dotson said.

“What this does is teach citizens how to resolve their own disputes,” Wade said.

“Hopefully, that’s where they eventually get to, resolving their own disputes.”

Dotson said she would look through cases before a session, “so I can get my perception of what is going on. I don’t like surprises even though there are some interesting ones which come through,” she said as she raised her eyebrows and shook her head when saying the word “interesting.”

She said most of the cases, however, “are tenant/landlord to a property dispute to someone living with someone else and now they’re splitting.

“Then sometimes you have to face the fact you know you’re not going to reach an agreement. Then you go see a magistrate and we’re done. It’s out of our hands.”